Harford city split over development

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the middle of his Aberdeen equipment shop, Paul Burkheimer, 62, sweeps some bolts and other construction parts off a blueprint on his workbench and frowns at what the renderings reveal.

Where the view from his home and adjoining business is now dominated by rolling hills and farmland - as well as a scenic view for golfers at the nearby Wetlands golf course - a developer wants to build thousands of townhouses and single-family dwellings.

Worst of all, in his view: The development was largely made possible by Burkheimer's 64-year-old brother, William, who agreed to sell his property next door, which has been in the family for over 50 years, for about $10 million.

The brother says progress is inevitable, and he sees nothing wrong with making money from it. Paul Burkheimer sees it otherwise: "There's always one in the family that's greedy."

The proposed annexation of more than 1,000 acres by Aberdeen has divided neighbors and even brothers as they are forced to choose between preserving their rural lifestyle and cashing in on the expected boom of a national military base realignment that promises to bring thousands of jobs to the county. Though the growth in property values has been lucrative for some, the city says it must raise taxes to serve the newcomers and concerns are growing about overcrowded schools.

The total annexation sought by the city would permit at least four individual developments the size of more than 800 football fields and could double the population of the city. The U.S. Census population estimate for Aberdeen in 2004 was about 14,000. Critics said the proposed plan skirts anti-sprawl laws and would lead to intense development outside the county's designated "growth envelope."

In Aberdeen, city officials say the impetus for the annexation is the looming influx of thousands of new workers as a result of the base realignment and closure plan, or BRAC, that is fueling expansion at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

"All these people from BRAC - I'd just as soon they never came here," said resident Bereta Kilby, 68.

To residents like Kilby, who enjoys sitting on her front porch listening to wind chimes gently blowing in the wind, the sheer size and scope of the annexations seem reckless.

But from his "war room," a corner office in City Hall wallpapered with maps of proposed subdivisions, Mayor S. Fred Simmons explains that his goal is quite the opposite.

If the individual developments are be annexed at once, planners can create a cohesive neighborhood - Simmons called it a potential "mini-Columbia," with a mix of housing, recreational centers, the golf course and perhaps even a new county school.

"When I look at the planned subdivisions ... there's no continuity," Simmons said. "The streets don't work, the water and sewer is a mess. We have a chance to do a whole region."

To do it, Aberdeen residents will have to pay as well. For far too long, he says, they have been undercharged for water and sewer services, a perk that has cost the city and led to both fees being doubled since Simmons was elected in November. The same goes for property taxes, which Simmons has proposed to increase by 40 percent.

With the annexation, however, the city's population could double, but the land mass would increase only marginally, putting less strain on city services such as trash pickup and police. The developer would be charged a $20,000 per unit fee to provide new services.

Altogether, rather than cripple the city, the new residents and the fee increases would bring it into equilibrium, Simmons said. "I'm only going to get one shot at this. I'm making the city right," Simmons said.

A public hearing on the proposed annexation will be held June 19. Much of the land has been sold to make way for the development, resulting in the loss of some familiar local landmarks.

Dawn's Jubilee Farm, where the Plummer family gave horse riding lessons for 35 years, was sold in September and discontinued lessons in December. A 14-acre property - which includes a gated driveway, a pool and a horse stable - will also be razed for development.

"We've got families fighting families out there," said County Councilman Richard C. Slutzky, a Republican. "There's a family issue going way beyond annexation."

On Paul Burkheimer's lawn is a giant sign alerting residents to what is about to take place in their quiet neighborhood: It shows, through numbers crossed out, how the project swelled in size since it began as a 180-acre project.

The Burkheimer family moved here in 1952. Their father, William Henry Burkheimer, was a butcher and had grown up on a farm. So when he decided to move the family from Overlea, he targeted this rural area where he could try his hand at dairy farming as a weekend activity.

Paul never took much of an interest in farming, and at age 30 he moved out and built a home on a subdivided 3-acre corner of the property. There, he started his business, which specializes in power mowers and chainsaws. Meanwhile, William and his two sons tended to the farm. By the mid-1980s, it was no longer profitable, and they turned their attention to trucking.

Their father died in 1994, and when their mother died in 2001, the inheritance left the family farm to William. Paul received nothing, and he blamed William. But they remained on good terms, and William would often visit two or three times a week, Paul said.

That changed in April, when Paul found out the family's farm had been sold. On those 150 acres where they grew up, a developer plans to build high-density housing that would surround Paul's property on three sides

"When he got the farm, I didn't mind," Paul says. "But when he turns around and sells it out for townhomes all around me without even telling me what he's doing, that broke my back. He wanted that $10 million more than he wanted my friendship, and it's a shame your brother gets that way."

William calls his brother's anger "sour grapes," and takes a split second to respond when asked why he's selling.

"Money," he says. "What's the use of beating around the bush? I can retire - you can't make no money farming. That's sad. That's just the bottom line."

The impending development was inevitable, he says. For decades, Interstate 95 served as a barrier to the city's limits. That changed with the construction of Ripken Stadium in 2002, where a developer plans to build shops, a multiplex and homes. Closer to the Burkheimers, the Wetlands golf course took the place of a large cornfield a decade ago. Its owner, Sam Smedley, now plans to rearrange fairways to build on-course townhouses and condos.

"So, yeah, the neighborhood is done. It's not rural anymore anyway," says William, who plans on moving to Iowa. "You don't stop progress."

Paul Burkheimer said he's not averse to selling - but the developer has to make it worth his while. At 62, he can't conceive of closing his business and relocating.

When the real estate agent sent a representative over to ask him how much it would take to sell, he told her $3 million. She told him he was ridiculous and walked out.

"Everybody has a price, but you know, whether they're willing to pay my price is something else, and so far they aren't willing," Burkheimer said. "They can build all around me and let me sit."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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